What three people who left the Republican Party think one year later.
The violent events of Jan. 6, 2021, were followed immediately by speculation about the effect they would have on electoral politics. That speculation was, a few weeks later, followed by a flurry of articles declaring that Republicans were “fleeing” the GOP. The New York Times reported in early February that nearly 140,000 had left the party in the 25 states examined. (Whether that number was significant or paltry was a source of many debates on social media.)
But a year later, it seems that Jan. 6 changed remarkably little. There was no mass exodus from the GOP. An analysis by the Washington Post summarized the phenomenon as “at best, no more than a modest stream.” A South Florida Sun Sentinel analysis, digging into regional numbers, concluded that the wave of departures was short-lived and raised an important point: The data did not fully reflect the many reasons voters left the party. Some, as pundits expected, were driven away by extremism in their party. But others left not because of the rioters’ actions or the president’s words, but because they felt Republican politicians had, in the riot’s aftermath, failed to make a full-throated defense of Donald Trump.
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To get a sense of the different reasons Republican voters left the party after Jan. 6 and whether the drama of the insurrection permanently changed their political identities, Slate spoke with three conservatives to learn how they think about their decision to leave. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
“I Was All for Trump”
Melissa Ensell, 40, is from Olean, New York.
Had you identified as a Republican your whole life?
Yeah, for the most part. In college, I was registered Republican, but I worked as a volunteer for a Democratic campaign for someone who was running for state Senate. I’m still involved in local politics. I go to local town hall meetings and involve myself in civic issues. When the 2016 election was going on, I was all for Trump. But as far as local politics, I was supporting the Libertarian candidates. In 2020, I voted for the Libertarian candidate for president, Jo Jorgensen.
Was there a time when you started to feel more uneasy with the Republican Party?
With the response to the COVID-19 issue. I just thought that what Donald Trump was doing was really irresponsible. There was a slow response. That’s what really made me say, well, the Republican Party, because they’re against mandates, they’re against trying to protect people. Unfortunately, I lost a few family members to COVID. My grandfather had Parkinson’s, and I hadn’t been able to see him because he was in a long-term care facility and they stopped any visits. My only communication with him was through phone calls. The first time I’d seen him in over a year was at his funeral.
So what caused you to actually change party affiliation?
I was watching the vote for the verification for Biden’s election results. I didn’t think that there was any [election fraud]. And then I saw that people were going to the Capitol. It never occurred to me that they would actually assault Capitol Police, or break into the building, that someone would get killed. I was just so completely disgusted.
A lot of that feeling happened in the aftermath of it all. At first, when you just saw people going into the building, smashing windows, taking pictures of everything, stealing stuff from offices—at that point, I just assumed it was just, like, pranks. Like they would end up getting a fine or something. And then it came out that Capitol police officers who had been assaulted have committed suicide after. And so little Republican response condemning it—that’s what made me really rethink my position.
Did you receive any pushback when you decided to leave the party?
My mom criticized me about it. My mother is a very sweet woman. She would give you the shirt off her back. But when it comes to politics, she has a tendency to be very staunchly Republican in pretty much every view.
How do you feel about the decision to leave now, a year later? How would you categorize yourself politically now?
I don’t doubt it at all, seeing how things have played out. I haven’t seen a lot of the people who perpetrated incidents within the Capitol getting harsh sentences. And I don’t hear a lot of Republicans speaking out against what was done. I see people who are louder on the soapbox, like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are becoming the spokespeople for the party. And that really worries me, because my concern is that more people will get behind them.
I guess, technically, I have no affiliation. I’m fiscally conservative but more of a social moderate. I’d like to see our government be more responsible with how funds are managed and handled. I’ve become more pro-choice over time. I’m concerned about what’s going on with the Texas laws. I don’t want to see these abortion bans go into effect, because I think the law in Texas is draconian.
Can you envision a world in which you would register again as a Republican?
I think what that would take is definitely stronger leadership. When I voted for Trump in 2016, it was because I wanted a change. So that’s why I went with someone who was a businessman, who wasn’t enmeshed in the political machine. I tried that, and it didn’t work. And it left a bad taste in my mouth.
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Nicole, 48, is a health care worker in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.
When did you first become politically engaged?
In college. I’ve always leaned to the right. For a long time I was independent, and then I joined the Republican Party because of Donald Trump. I liked him. I felt like he was lifting the veil. Exposing the establishment.
Why did you decide to leave the Republican Party?
I was disgusted after Jan. 6. I don’t agree with how some people handled it that day. And I don’t think Donald Trump wanted that to happen. I don’t think that he encouraged people to go into the Capitol at all. I did go to the one Stop the Steal rally in November, and it was completely peaceful. But I did not go to the one on Jan. 6. Because about three days before, I could see what was happening: It looked like a setup.
Right after the election, I felt like, I don’t trust these Republicans anymore. On the day of inauguration, when he was stepping down, I went online and withdrew from the Republican Party. I changed my registration that day. I mean, who really stood up for him during this? I felt sorry for him.
How do you feel about Donald Trump now?
I feel like he’s part of the establishment. I do think that the election was phony. It’s way above our government—more of a global government, at least that’s what I think they’re attempting. And this is why I feel like there’s no right or left. It’s just it’s all to control us through divisiveness. I don’t believe any of it anymore.
Why do you think that Donald Trump is part of the establishment, if you also think that he was cheated by the establishment?
He hasn’t done anything. I don’t understand why. I know he got kicked off of Twitter. He got censored, and that was it. He could have easily had other platforms to go on. And I just feel like he is all in, as far as these vaccines go. I am not anti-vaccine. I’m anti-mandate. I know that he’s not for the mandates, but he certainly is for these vaccines, and he’s certainly pushing them. I don’t know, something changed with Donald Trump. And I never thought I would think this way about him. I’m not saying I’m not going to ever change my mind or I’m not going to vote for him. But I just feel like he’s let people down.
Do most of your friends and family feel the same way you do?
No, I’m actually almost all alone. I have lost a lot of friendships. No blowouts or anything, just loss of contacts. I’m not even that vocal. I mean, a little bit on Facebook. With all the scandals, the impeachment and all that, everybody became political. But I feel that once people knew I was a Trump supporter, they didn’t want to associate with me anymore. I had no idea that half these people I knew were such Donald Trump haters.
What happened when you told the Republicans in your life about your decision to leave the party?
My parents are Republican. But I think that the GOP has probably always been the deep state, the Democrats are the controlled opposition, and I think that maybe like my father is just falling for it.
The Elected Official Who Had Enough
Ethan Demme, 39, runs an education publishing company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A former leader of the Lancaster County Republican Committee, Demme was one of several Republicans in the county to publicly break with the GOP after the insurrection. He is now the Pennsylvania state chair of the Serve America Movement, a moderately conservative, “big-tent” political party with an emphasis on government and elections reforms.
What has your political journey been?
The first campaign I volunteered on, I was 14. It was in 1996, and that was for Joe Pitts when he ran for Congress. I’ve been involved in politics ever since. I got involved with the College Republicans. I got involved in the McCain campaign. I got involved in the local Republican Party as a committee person. I became the youngest Republican Party chair in Lancaster County. I’m currently an elected member of the East Lampeter Township Board of Supervisors, in my second six-year term.
I ran for state Senate in 2016 in the Republican primary. I was not a fan of Donald Trump, and I even held a Never Trump rally a couple of weeks before the Republican primary in Pennsylvania, as a last-ditch hope. Needless to say, I didn’t win that primary. Since he was elected, I was still involved locally, with the hope that Donald Trump would lose reelection and the Republican Party could get back to what it used to be.
What did you think after Trump lost the 2020 election?
He started saying that the election was stolen, and then I watched as all of my local elected officials went along with it. That was the most disturbing thing to me: The people that I knew and helped elect went along with something that they all knew and would privately say was untrue.
And then Jan. 6 happened, and that was the last and final straw. I had a friend over, and the news came on, and we watched the news unfold in real time. It was just shocking, because it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And I remember, I told my wife, “I’m done. I can’t stick around anymore.” I left the party on Jan. 7.
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How did your friends and family respond to your decision to leave the party?
I don’t think I’ve ever voted straight party ticket, so people understood it, because I wasn’t saying anything significantly different. But there were folks who tried to convince me to become a Democrat and folks who tried to convince me to stay a Republican and fight to reform the Republican Party. I understand both of those perspectives. But now’s the time for some systemic change. To do that, we need competition at the ballot box.
Locally, there were several folks who were involved in the Republican Party apparatus who resigned from the committee. There were folks who switched from Republican to Democrat, and there were folks who switched to unaffiliated or independent in our Board of Supervisors. No Democrat has ever been elected locally—we’re a pretty red area. Three out of five of our members all left the party within a couple of days after Jan. 6. It’s not a huge number, but it is pretty significant when you start to see elected officials leave a party.
Was any part of the Jan. 6 response surprising to you at all?
In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, quite a few Republican members of Congress spoke out pretty strongly against the violence. I was actually surprised at how quickly they backtracked once they realized that the base of the Republican Party wasn’t significantly concerned by Jan. 6. It was pretty shocking to me how people started just trying to whitewash and gloss over what actually took place on Jan. 6.
A year later, how do you feel about the decision to leave the party?
If anything, the actions and activities of a lot of Republicans that I know made me double down. A lot of folks now see a path forward that says we can ignore what happened, that we don’t have to actually address or change anything about the way the Republican Party operates.
I would say I probably have reprioritized which [issues] I value more. Jan. 6, to me, showed that our institutions and systems were under direct attack. I became much more aware of how close we were to actually having those institutions fail. It could have been a very dark day. So I’ve started to look for candidates who are prioritizing sort of the basic tenets of democracy.
Update, Jan. 6, 2022 at 4:45 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify Ensell’s current political beliefs.